A savage study of two teenage boys abandoned by society
How do you get under the skin of a broken family? Anna Jordan’s completely devastating, Bruntwood Prize-winning play is a masterclass in doing just that. Ned Bennett’s production reunites the cast who performed its original run at Royal Exchange, Manchester – and their intimacy shows.
Jake Davies and Alex Austin unleash stunningly natural performances as two teenage brothers who can’t be in the same room without picking at each other like scabs, opening old wounds and letting the blood run. Their alcoholic mother has moved in with her new boyfriend, leaving the kids to marinate in a fug of dirty washing, Xbox games and hardcore porn. In Georgia Lowe’s ingenious, abstracted design, the stage is a huge arena that the two teenage boys run and leap across, thin and agile as spiders – it echoes with the ghosts of the people who’ve left them.
Jordan has a formidable talent for capturing the distinctive grunts and gross jokes of teenage boys’ speech – young brother Bobby’s relentless chat drives his brother up the wall and to the furthest edge of the sofa bed they share. Hench is older, and he’s been told he’s bad. Both have fathers who are long gone, no school, no friends. When animal-loving neighbour Jennifer comes into their lives, she fulfils the role of all three: taking care of their neglected mutt Taliban, cooking them dinner, confiding the pain of losing her own dad. But some wounds won’t heal cleanly.
There’s a depressing thread running through the play: that maybe broken people are just broken for good. But this fatalism is undercut by Jordan’s anger at the failures of the world outside the boy’s flat - left in absolute poverty, they share one t-shirt, starve, keep the curtains drawn so social services won’t see them. There’s nothing sentimental about Ned Bennett’s production, but it leaves a lump in the throat that won’t go down.
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This is what the Royal Court upstairs is for - bold new writing and bold new staging - but I found it hard to shift a niggling feeling that what I was watching was 'poverty porn' in some sense, even though the play felt more and more compassionate and enquiring as it went on. In the end, it has important things to say about how those who don't experience love can't share in it or share it later on. I wasn't fully convinced by the young actors playing younger than than they are.